Michelle Good should be celebrating the back-to-back awards for her debut novel about residential school survivors, but instead, she’s mourning the children whose deaths in the system are only now being accounted for.
The book, which won the Amazon Canada First Novel Award last week, traces the intersecting paths of five residential school survivors in east Vancouver as they try to rebuild their lives and come to grips with their pasts.
However, Good says her moment in the literary limelight has been overshadowed by grief over the remains of 215 children found buried in unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, not far from her home in Savona, B.C.
“It feels petty and selfish to even think about (awards) in light of this,” Good, 64, said by phone Monday, her voice cracking with emotion.
“I’ll go back at some point and I’ll think, wow, this happened. But now, all I can think is those babies.”
The discovery has Good thinking about the trauma her mother, Martha Soonias, carried from her time at the St. Barnabas Indian Residential School in Onion Lake, which straddles the Alberta-Saskatchewan border.
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Soonias was scarred after watching her friend, Lily, hemorrhage to death from tuberculosis on the playground, said Good.
She wove this story into Five Little Indians, in which the characters bury the remains of a child inspired by Lily, and begin their own process of healing.
“I was paying tribute to (Lily), but also paying tribute to my mother’s trauma of having to watch a child bleeding from the mouth, dying.”
Good hopes the child remains found in Kamloops will be identified and returned to their families so they can be laid to rest according to spiritual protocols.
But it shouldn’t take a burial site for the rest of Canada to wake up to the well-documented horrors of residential schools, said Good, who advocated for survivors as a lawyer.
“Why has this not been addressed before this time? Why does it take this kind of a devastating discovery?” Good said, noting that the disappearance of children was “anecdotal knowledge” among Kamloops residential school survivors.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has identified more than 4,100 children who died of disease or accident while attending residential school. Many more never returned to their communities, according to the commission, and the true death toll may never be known.
While Indigenous people must live with the ongoing trauma and grief of residential schools, Good said those who succeeded the system’s designers in government have yet to properly acknowledge it.
“Here is this trauma playing itself out again and again and again, right now. It’s not in the past,” she said.
“This is something that is piercing the hearts of Indigenous people right across the country.”
Good said she shares the awards acclaim with the residential school survivors who see themselves in Five Little Indians. She hopes the attention will encourage more readers to pick up the novel as a starting point for their education about Canada’s residential school system.
The Governor General’s Literary Awards, which are administered by the Canada Council for the Arts, handed out honours across seven categories in both English and French on Tuesday.
Toronto-born, Ann Arbor, Mich.-based wordsmith Anne Carson won the poetry prize for Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, from New Directions Publishing.
The non-fiction prize went to Madhur Anand of Guelph, Ont., for This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart, from Strange Light.
Kim Senklip Harvey in Vancouver prevailed in the drama category for the play Kamloopa: An Indigenous Matriarch Story, from Talonbooks.
In young people’s literature, the Fan Brothers of Toronto won for the illustrated book The Barnabus Project, from Tundra Books, while Eric Walters of Guelph, Ont., won the text prize for The King of Jam Sandwiches, from Orca Book Publishers.
The award for French-to-English translation went to Montreal’s Lazer Lederhendler for If You Hear Me, from Biblioasis, based on Si tu m’entends by Pascale Quiviger.
There are separate French-language categories for francophone writing.
Each winner receives $25,000, while the publisher of each winning book receives $3,000 to support promotional activities. Finalists each receive $1,000.
Founded in 1936, the Governor General’s Literary Awards give out a total of $450,000 annually.
Organizers say the 2021 awards will return to the usual fall schedule after the COVID-19 crisis delayed the 2020 competition.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.